late 14c., conservatyf, "tending to preserve or protect, preservative, having the power to keep whole or safe," from Old French conservatif, from Medieval Latin conservativus, from Latin conservatus, past participle of conservare "to keep, preserve, keep intact, guard," from assimilated form of com-, here perhaps an intensive prefix (see com-), + servare "keep watch, maintain" (from PIE root *ser- (1) "to protect").
From 1840 in the general sense "disposed to retain and maintain what is established, opposed to innovation and change," or, in a negative sense "opposed to progress."
As a modern political tradition, "antagonistic to change in the institutions of a country," often especially "opposed to changes toward pure democracy," conservatism traces to Edmund Burke's opposition to the French Revolution (1790), but the word conservative is not found in his writing. It was coined by his French disciples (such as Chateaubriand, who titled his journal defending clerical and political restoration "Le Conservateur").
Conservative as the name of a British political faction first appeared in an 1830 issue of the "Quarterly Review," in an unsigned article sometimes attributed to John Wilson Croker. It replaced Tory (q.v.) by 1843, reflecting both a change from the pejorative name (in use for 150 years) and repudiation of some reactionary policies.
Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology. ... Instead, conservatism is a way of looking at the civil social order. ... Unlike socialism, anarchism, and even liberalism, then, conservatism offers no universal pattern of politics for adoption everywhere. On the contrary, conservatives reason that social institutions always must differ considerably from nation to nation, since any land's politics must be the product of that country's dominant religion, ancient customs, and historical experience. [Russell Kirk, "What is Conservatism," introduction to "The Portable Conservative Reader," 1982]
Phrases such as conservative estimate (1874), in which it means "characterized by caution, deliberately low," make no sense etymologically. Related: Conservatively; conservativeness.
by 1987, abbreviation for neo-conservative in the U.S. political sense.
Neoconservatism is the first variant of American conservatism in the past century that is in the 'American grain.' It is hopeful, not lugubrious; forward-looking, not nostalgic; and its general tone is cheerful, not grim or dyspeptic. Its 20th-century heroes tend to be TR, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Such Republican and conservative worthies as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Barry Goldwater are politely overlooked. [Irving Kristol, "The Neoconservative Persuasion," in The Weekly Standard, Aug. 25, 2003]
also neoconservative; used in the modern sense by 1979:
My Republican vote [in the 1972 presidential election] produced little shock waves in the New York intellectual community. It didn't take long — a year or two — for the socialist writer Michael Harrington to come up with the term "neoconservative" to describe a renegade liberal like myself. To the chagrin of some of my friends, I decided to accept that term; there was no point calling myself a liberal when no one else did. [Irving Kristol, "Forty Good Years," The Public Interest, spring 2005]
The term is attested from by 1964 (neo-conservatism is by 1959; new conservative is from mid-1950s), originally often applied to Russell Kirk and his followers, who would be philosophically opposed to the later neocons. From neo- "new" + conservative (n.).
also protonotary (under which spelling it appears in OED print edition), mid-15c., "principal clerk of a court," from Medieval Latin prothonotarius, from a Late Latin borrowing of Greek prōtonotarios "first scribe," originally the recorder of the court of the Byzantine empire, from prōtos "first" (see proto-) + Latin notarius (see notary). Related: Prothonotarial.
The -h- appeared in Medieval Latin, perhaps because Greek prōto- sometimes became prōth- (before an aspirated vowel); it was carried into Old French, which passed it to Middle English. Other Middle English proto- words from French also had variants in protho- (prothomartir "earliest martyr," Protheus "the god Proteus," prothogol "protocol," all 15c.), but soon it was purged from the others; prothonotary kept its perhaps through the powerful and necessary conservatism of legal language.